May December, the latest film from director Todd Haynes, has a Charlotte connection: Local actor Mallory Smith served as stand-in for one of its stars, Natalie Portman. Mallory shares some of her experiences here. And you can see her at the 1:30 pm screening on Sunday, Nov. 26, where she’ll be introducing the film and answering questions afterward.
Growing up in Charlotte, were you interested in acting?
My mom put me in acting classes, and it took off from there. I grew up going to Matthews Playhouse. And I trained at Acting Out Studio in Ballantyne and the Ardrey Kell High School theater program.
What led you to May December?
I was looking for any chance to get on a film set. I had heard about stand-ins, so I did one day on Outer Banks, the Netflix show, and a couple of days on the film Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.
I was attending UNC Charlotte and saw this casting call for a stand-in for Natalie Portman. I met her measurements; she has the same hair color, skin tone, same height. So I submitted and got a message back the next day. They asked me to come to Savannah to test out the camera filters for the cinematographer. I didn’t have the job yet, but I met the amazing cinematographer, Chris Blauvelt, and he introduced me to Todd Haynes, the director.
When did you get the job?
About a week later, I got an email saying, Hey, could you come down again? We want to do a screen test. So I went to Savannah the next day. They brought up me and three or four other girls who were also contenders, lined us up and asked us about our experience. As the day went on, they brought me down to stand in for Natalie doing the costume test. Later, after we broke for lunch, they said, Mallory, you’ve got the job.
What does a stand-in do?
It varies from set to set, but Todd Haynes was very inclusive with me. I was lucky. I would watch Natalie do the rehearsal, then I would come in and do exactly what she did so they would know how it would look on camera. They even cut my hair like hers.
Setting up for a shot can take an hour, two hours. It’s pretty long. That’s why they have stand-ins. While I’m standing in for Natalie, she’s doing what she needs to do to prepare for the scene. [Cast member] Charles Melton came in one day and asked me to run lines with him. Then every time he would have a scene with Natalie, he’d ask, Hey, do you want to run lines? And I’d be like, of course! Yeah, let’s do it.
It really helps for the stand-in to look exactly like your actor. That’s why it’s the cinematographer’s decision who gets to be the stand-in, because you’re working with him and the director mostly. I was lucky enough to also work alongside Natalie and Charles. Natalie is very generous and collaborative.
Did you learn a lot about acting in front of the camera?
I really did, getting to rehearse with these great actors who had scenes with Natalie. I learned how to memorize lines quickly. I would get the lines the night before, memorize them and come to set the next morning and do them with whichever actor had a scene with her. That was rewarding because toward the end of the shoot, I got a couple of lines in a scene. I didn’t expect that at all. It was generous of Todd to do that. Thanks to him and the assistant directors, I’m now SAG eligible, and I can join the union.
The story doesn’t end with the shoot. Tell us about Cannes.
I always dreamed of going to the Cannes Film Festival, and it falls on my birthday. So I took my first trip to France to celebrate my 22nd birthday. I reached out to a couple of people and got lucky enough to go to the premiere afterparty in Cannes. To see everybody again after six months and celebrate this fantastic film was extremely exciting. I didn’t expect to be invited anywhere because I’m not part of the cast. I went to Cannes to experience the festival and celebrate my birthday. So it all was just a perfect, perfect storm.
How would you describe the film?
It invites the audience to think and to look at themselves. You go into it trusting Natalie’s character, who we think is a reliable narrator. But as the movie goes on, you start to question who the reliable narrator is and who you align yourself with. You start to see it unfold as a nuanced story, and you don’t know who to trust.
And the music. We rehearsed with the music, and it sets the tone for the scene. It’s ominous and bold and ahead of the action. The film is complex and invites you to follow each frame and decide for yourself how you think. It makes you question your own judgment.
Have you seen it in a theater?
I went to see May December last night at IPH. I love The Independent Picture House! It’s every actor’s and filmmaker’s dream. It’s just a beautiful, beautiful theater.
See Mallory Smith at the May December screening on Sunday, Nov. 26, at 1:30 pm!